Win32 API Converting an error code into a message string


Example

GetLastError returns a numerical error code. To obtain a descriptive error message (e.g., to display to a user), you can call FormatMessage:

// This functions fills a caller-defined character buffer (pBuffer)
// of max length (cchBufferLength) with the human-readable error message
// for a Win32 error code (dwErrorCode).
// 
// Returns TRUE if successful, or FALSE otherwise.
// If successful, pBuffer is guaranteed to be NUL-terminated.
// On failure, the contents of pBuffer are undefined.
BOOL GetErrorMessage(DWORD dwErrorCode, LPTSTR pBuffer, DWORD cchBufferLength)
{
    if (cchBufferLength == 0)
    {
        return FALSE;
    }

    DWORD cchMsg = FormatMessage(FORMAT_MESSAGE_FROM_SYSTEM | FORMAT_MESSAGE_IGNORE_INSERTS,
                                 NULL,  /* (not used with FORMAT_MESSAGE_FROM_SYSTEM) */
                                 dwErrorCode,
                                 MAKELANGID(LANG_NEUTRAL, SUBLANG_DEFAULT),
                                 pBuffer,
                                 cchBufferLength,
                                 NULL);
    return (cchMsg > 0);
}

In C++, you can simplify the interface considerably by using the std::string class:

#include <Windows.h>
#include <exception>
#include <stdexcept>
#include <memory>
#include <string>
typedef std::basic_string<TCHAR> String;

String GetErrorMessage(DWORD dwErrorCode)
{
    LPTSTR psz = NULL;
    const DWORD cchMsg = FormatMessage(FORMAT_MESSAGE_FROM_SYSTEM
                                         | FORMAT_MESSAGE_IGNORE_INSERTS
                                         | FORMAT_MESSAGE_ALLOCATE_BUFFER,
                                       NULL, // (not used with FORMAT_MESSAGE_FROM_SYSTEM)
                                       dwErrorCode,
                                       MAKELANGID(LANG_NEUTRAL, SUBLANG_DEFAULT),
                                       reinterpret_cast<LPTSTR>(&psz),
                                       0,
                                       NULL);
    if (cchMsg > 0)
    {
        // Assign buffer to smart pointer with custom deleter so that memory gets released
        // in case String's c'tor throws an exception.
        auto deleter = [](void* p) { ::HeapFree(::GetProcessHeap(), 0, p); };
        std::unique_ptr<TCHAR, decltype(deleter)> ptrBuffer(psz, deleter);
        return String(ptrBuffer.get(), cchMsg);
    }
    else
    {
        throw std::runtime_error("Failed to retrieve error message string.");
    }
}

NOTE: These functions also work for HRESULT values. Just change the first parameter from DWORD dwErrorCode to HRESULT hResult. The rest of the code can remain unchanged.